DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Although he was taken 18 years ago, when Meryem Gunden talks about the night her son disappeared it is as though no time has passed.
“He was wearing a red shirt. His hair was a mess,” she recalls. “It was so late at night and they took my son away. They took him in front of my eyes and they disappeared him.”
Her son, Ibrahim Gunden, was arrested by the Jitem, a special unit of the Turkish gendarmerie charged with “intelligence gathering and counterterrorism,” and taken in for questioning on the suspicion that he had been feeding members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group. He was never seen again.
Such stories are common in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, where an ongoing conflict has been fought between the government and the PKK for the past 25 years. While atrocities were committed on both sides, most of the 40,000 people killed were Kurds.
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, thousands of civil rights activists, politicians and businessmen and women suspected of having ties with the PKK were kidnapped and murdered. Then, in 2002, the army lifted the region’s state of emergency and the men from Jitem disappeared.
No one knows the exact number of those tortured and killed, although human rights groups estimate that some 5,000 extrajudicial killings were committed during this period and that some 1,500 went missing, mostly at the hands of state elements. It is only in rare cases that the victims were even identified.
As a deterrent — a brute reminder of what happened to those who worked against the government — the victim’s bodies were often dumped into wells or doused in acid. It is only now that Turkish officials are beginning to dig for the remains of Kurds who have disappeared.
Now, these “death wells” are opened, and light is being shed on a gruesome period of Turkey’s history and the "dirty war" waged by Turkish security forces against those suspected of supporting the PKK.
A high-profile trial of suspected members of an alleged ultra nationalist gang — known as “Ergenekon” — has led some Kurds to believe there may finally be a chance for justice. The investigation, which started in June 2007, has already resulted in the arrest of about 200 people, among them retired four-star generals and prominent politicians, journalists and academics.
According to an indictment, the plotters were hoping to bring down the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party by sowing enough chaos, through terror attacks and high-level assassinations, that the military would be forced to intervene.
But in Turkey’s southeast, the Ergenekon case has given new life to the issue of the people who went missing during the 1980s and '90s.
“The [Ergenekon] investigation has given us a chance to try to find the truth about the disappeared,” said Burhan Zonooglu, a coordinator at the Human Rights Association in Diyarbakir, which was also the scene of extreme violence during the '80s and '90s.
“We [Kurds] know very well the people who are now in jail. We know what they did. Now the rest of Turkish society is going to learn.”